Particular Friendships


Pamela York Klainer

Religious life came with a dizzying number of rules, which Sister Claire imparted to the young Sisters bit by bit. The topic of Particular Friendships arose early. Religious life was about community, which meant they ate together, prayed together, and recreated as a group in the common room rather than going off in twos and threes to talk about their day. When entering the dining hall they sat in the next available seat and enjoyed the company of any Sisters at that table. Looking to sit with special friends was strongly discouraged. When they took the recommended daily walk they were asked to invite different companions. Clearly they couldn’t walk anywhere as a group of seventy six, but if Sister Claire saw the same two or three going out together every day, those Sisters would be violating the rule against PF’s.

Sister Claire slipped when using the number seventy six in her example. She actually meant to say seventy five, as one Sister-in-training left within days of joining the Order. The girl left so quickly no one was exactly sure of her name. No one gave a reason for her departure, and no one saw her go. Sister Claire never mentioned her again, and without fanfare the number of place settings in the dining hall was adjusted to reflect their current number. One cell was empty in the dormitory, the bed crisply made up but no small personal items seen on the bedside chest and the curtain left hanging open. For Loretta the departed one became a ghost, shadowing the rest with a distant, unformulated doubt. Not for me, the shadow voice whispered. Are you so sure it’s going to be for you?

Loretta frowned as she listened to Sister Claire on the topic of Particular Friendships. Loretta and Katie, Sister Kathleen when in the company of others, were already particular friends because they shared that first, illicit cigarette. Katie assured Loretta that she had a reliable supply. Six high school friends were enrolled at the College as lay students. Those girls saw Katie in classes, and slipped her a pack whenever she was close to running out. Loretta and Katie quickly found the boiler room, a dank and creepy place in the basement that was deserted after the custodian left for the day. Sister Claire never went down there, nor did any of the other young Sisters. The custodian always had a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth, so lingering stale tobacco odor was easily attributed to him.

As quickly as Loretta and Katie sealed their friendship, they both agreed that Mary Magdalene, who was the eldest of a family of twelve and wanted to be a nun from the age of three, was a pious snot and had the makings of a snitch. They resolved to give M&M, as they called her, a wide berth.

Particular friendships, or particular aversions, began to form the moment they entered the door.

But Sister Claire made Particular Friendships into a rule, a prohibition. Loretta felt anxious and confused when she thought about applying the rule to Sister Joan. Surely she was Sister Joan’s particular friend. Everyone could see that, how joyful Loretta was when Sister Joan joined Loretta for a walk on those Sundays when family visits weren’t allowed. Loretta brought up PF’s the very next time she and Sister Joan were together, and not calmly. Loretta’s words came out in a rush.

“What is Sister Claire talking about? Can’t we be friends now that I’m here in the Order? Why didn’t you tell me? Are you not supposed to have friends either, or is it just us who are starting out?”

Sister Joan’s voice was soothing. “Sister Claire isn’t talking about us. I’m your sponsor in religious life, and that’s different.”

Loretta’s anxiety was not assuaged. “No it isn’t. Sister Claire is saying that people shouldn’t be close. And we’re close, aren’t we? I showed you my poems. And I tell you everything. I’d never show Sister Claire my poems. Ever.”

Sisters Joan and Loretta were walking side by side, and now a young and hurt Loretta turned to face Joan.

“We’re friends, aren’t we?”

Sister Joan chose her words carefully. “Of course we’re friends, and I treasure that.” Then she added the dreaded and to her, merely obligatory words. “As I treasure the friendship of all of our Sisters.”

Loretta was crushed. She took a deep breath and walked on, not waiting for Sister Joan to follow. Sister Joan hurriedly followed, trying to repair the damage. “Loretta, don’t make too much of this. I don’t. The Order has certain rules that are in place for specific reasons. Over time it all works out. Surely you’ve seen Sisters on campus who are often together, and happily so.”

Loretta’s hurt quickly turned to anger. “Then why have a rule if people don’t pay any attention? And what’s the specific reason? And if we’re friends in the way you’re friends with everybody why don’t you invite all of them on a walk, instead of just me?”

Sister Joan tried again, unsuccessfully. “You’ll understand more as time goes on. Don’t focus on PF’s. That’s not really what religious life is all about.”

Loretta heard echoes of her mother, and was dismayed. It’s not just going to be about you and Sister Joan you know. There’s a lot more to religious life than that.

Loretta had her new friend Katie, and her school work, and in that moment she didn’t care if Sister Joan ever came to see her again. The walk ended on a sour note, and the following Sunday was the once monthly family visit, so she and Sister Joan had no immediate plans to meet.

Upon returning to the residence Loretta heard the news. Two more girls were gone, and the whispered reason came from Katie directly to the ear of Loretta via Katie’s college classmates who’d heard the rumors and were spreading them as fast as they could. Two girls were discovered embracing, someone said even kissing, in the woods behind the Sisters-in-training residence.

Loretta knew nothing of girls wanting to kiss, but she quickly made the connection.

Particular friendships indeed.

6 thoughts on “Particular Friendships

  1. for Nedra: Great to hear! I knew girls in college like the pious snot – did you? They were insufferable.

  2. In the first episode we know Loretta has been in religious life for 16 years. She probably got a college degree paid for by the religious order which was a goal. I am surprised with the background information you are providing that she has stayed a nun for that long. She’s smart, takes risks, and has questioned her religious life. I am laughing at her spunkiness and enjoying the series—but wondering why she is still a nun.

  3. for Joyce: An excellent question, and one that may prompt a full blog post as not everyone reads the comments. The answer is twofold. The first part relates to my very modest experience writing fiction. I didn’t anticipate, when writing the first episode, that I made Loretta, at 34, an unlikely person to have stayed in religious life. When I wrote, I was thinking that someone who’d take on the Mother Superior in such a cheeky verbal game would have to be a little older, not a rookie. But you’re right – to have Loretta stay for so many years is implausible. The second part is that I honestly do have the question of why intelligent, independently minded women stayed at all, and some of them did for a lifetime. It’s a hard conversation to have, a little like asking a woman why she stays in an unhappy marriage.

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